The Last Seduction

Spurned by term limitations, Willie Brown turns his political affections on San Francisco. But how long will our small-town ways hold his fancy?

But Brown contends that racism, per se, didn't bother him. "I didn't dwell on it," he says. "I didn't know anything different. Yet instinctively, I knew there must have been a better arrangement. I knew there must be a better life. I knew I wasn't going to continue to put up with that horseshit."

But Willie Brown has never forgotten the humiliation of Mineola, and the way it limited his family's horizons. The power he has accumulated over the years and the audacious way in which he has wielded it must be understood in this context. To ignore the powerful imperative poverty and racism can create in a person is to miss the full meaning of Willie Brown.

During World War II, Brown's uncles moved to San Francisco to work in the shipyards, a ploy to escape military service. Itsie soon switched to making his living as a gambler in the Fillmore District.

In August 1951, after he had finished high school, Willie Brown set out by train to join his Uncle Itsie in San Francisco with his mother's and grandmother's blessing. Crossing the Texas border, the "colored" signs came down on the train and he knew for sure his new life had begun.

"I thought I'd gone to heaven," he says of seeing San Francisco for the first time. "I got here at night, and the lights all over the city were like pearls. I thought they were all bridges."

He moved in with Uncle Itsie at 1028 Oak. Every day Brown would set out on foot, each day in a different direction, and just walk. Soon he knew the city, but he soured on his living arrangement.

"[Itsie] ran a game on the weekends," Brown says. "It would start Friday night and go nonstop to Sunday night. I served beer and I didn't get any sleep."

Brown moved to the YMCA, then to a Turk Street flophouse, and joined Jones United Methodist Church, at the time a font of social activism. He became a church youth leader, establishing what would later serve as the hot center of his political base. Shortly, he enrolled in S.F. State College, met his wife, Blanche, and married.

At college, Brown met John Burton and he joined the Young Democrats. Playing campus politics, Brown began to hone his rhetorical skills.

"The college was a total hotbed of radical politics," Brown recalls. "It was the days of Van Hallinan and the Independent Progressive Party. We were debating hot issues like the recognition of Red China.

"I was just part of the movement," he says. "I knew instinctively this was the right crowd. I wasn't trying to revolutionize people, though. I learned there that you don't take people beyond where they want to follow."

Graduating in 1955, Brown signed up for classes at Hastings Law School. He slept only a few hours every night -- he says he still only sleeps four hours -- and held down several odd jobs and began raising a family. At one time he served as both student president and janitor at Hastings, leading meetings and then cleaning up the room afterward.

After graduating from law school in 1958 Brown was shut out by every white firm in the city, so he set up a criminal defense practice, defending mostly prostitutes and drug dealers.

De facto racial discrimination marked the genuine beginning of his political career when wife Blanche was shopping in Forest Knolls for a house. The real estate agent saw her coming, closed and locked the house, and high-tailed it out the back door. She went back the next day and received the same treatment.

Brown led his wife and children back to the housing development that Sunday after church. He had alerted the press beforehand, so reporters were on hand to see the sales rep disappear again. The Brown family then led a sit-in -- the first in California history -- in the garage of a Forest Knolls home. The neighborhood was crucified in the press.

The protests grew, as other blacks mimicked the Brown family's strategy. Whites soon joined in and a picket line formed in Forest Knolls. One liberal white who appeared, with her baby in tow, was Dianne Feinstein. (By the by, that baby, Katherine, is now Mayor Jordan's point person on criminal justice policy.)

Ultimately, San Francisco Mayor George Christopher intervened, imploring the housing developer to show a home to Brown and his family. Brown refused. "I do not want to be an exception," he said at the time. "I would not accept a private showing."

He never bought a house in Forest Knolls, but he caught the attention of Phil Burton, John's older brother and then a left-of-center Assemblyman out to break the moderates in the Democratic Party.

Burton used his reapportionment powers to design an Assembly district in San Francisco for a black candidate. The candidate was Brown, and his opponent in the 1962 Democratic primary, Ed Gaffney, was strong with unions but weak with minorities.

"I have a little nigger running against me," Gaffney said to a legislative aide at the time. Brown lost by a mere 915 votes.

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